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The Stronsay Beast

Although stories of sea serpents, and mythical sea-dwellers, abound in Orkney, there have actually been a surprising number of documented, historical creature "sightings" that have now entered the lore of the islands.

Perhaps the most famous of these encounters took place in Stronsay.

There, in 1808, the first, and perhaps best-known, of a series of episodes relating to the carcasses of, what appeared to be, long-necked sea creatures were washed ashore.

The Stronsay beast was first sighted on September 25, 1808, lying on rocks at Rothiesholm Head, in the south-east of the island.

There, John Peace, a local man, fishing off the coast, was puzzled by the sight of seabirds flocking around what looked like an animal's corpse on the rocks.

Turning his little boat, and watched by another Stronsay man, George Sherar, Peace made his way to the carcass. But what he found was unlike anything he had encountered before. Lying on the rocks were the remains of a large serpent-like creature, with a long, eel-like neck and three pairs of legs.

At the time, the corpse was inaccessible, so closer examination was impossible. However, ten days later, one of Orkney's notorious gales blew the decomposing remains ashore, where they were found just below the high water mark.

Sherar now had his chance to examine the corpse, which he did - meticulously studying it and measuring the dimensions of the "sea monster".

The beast was described as serpentine, measuring exactly 55 feet long, with a neck measuring ten feet three inches long. The head was like that of a sheep, with eyes bigger than a seal's. Its skin was grey and rough to the touch. However, if stroked from the head down the back, it was said to be as "smooth as velvet".

Six "limbs" extended from the body and a bristly mane of long, wiry hair grew from the beast's shoulders, down to its tail. These silver coloured bristles were said to glow eerily in the dark.

"Its flesh was described as being like 'coarse, ill-coloured beef, entirely covered with fat and tallow and without the least resemblance or affinity to fish'. The skin, which was grey coloured and had an elastic texture was said to be about two inches thick in parts."
Account of the Stronsay Beast as reported in The Orcadian newspaper.

By the end of September, news of Stronsay's monster had spread far and wide.

Because the remains had rotted away to practically nothing, the four men who had originally examined the carcass were taken to Kirkwall. There, they had to swear to the magistrate that their information was the truth.

A decomposing shark?

Before long, details of the incredible find reached the ears of a Natural History Society in Edinburgh.

At the society's meeting in November 1808, the creature was given the Latin name Halsydrus Pontoppidani. The name, meaning Pontoppidan's Water Snake of the Sea, was in honour of the 18th century Norwegian bishop, who collected reports of sea-monsters.

Shortly afterward, the naturalist Sir Everard Home read of the Stronsay Beast. Intrigued by the tales of a sea-monster, he viewed what was left of the evidence. He was convinced, however, that the creature was nothing more than the remains of a decomposing basking shark - an animal fairly common in the waters around Orkney.

Comparing the vertebrae of the "monster" with those known to belong to a basking shark, Home found them to be identical.

But how could the long necked creature washed up on a Stronsay beach be the remains of a basking shark? The answer lies in the physiology of the basking shark, and, in particular, how it decays after death.

First the shark's jaws - which are attached only by a small piece of flesh - drop off leaving what looks like the remains of a long neck and a small skull.

Then, as only the upper half of the animal's tail fin carries the spine, the lower half rots away and provides a convincing serpentine tail. When the dorsal fin begins to decompose, the remaining rays can have the appearance of a hairlike mane. The monster's six legs can simply be explained away as the remains of the shark's lower fins.

But the mystery doesn't end there.

Even if the Stronsay Beast was nothing more than a dead basking shark, an element of mystery still surrounds the saga.

The longest recorded basking shark measured a mere 40 feet - 15 feet smaller than the remains of the Stronsay Beast. At 55 feet long from tip to tail, the shark that decomposed to form the Stronsay Beast must have been a monster in its own right.

So was the Stronsay Beast really a shark? Or is there another explanation? An unknown species of giant shark perhaps?

With all tales such as these, sometimes it's better not to know.

Encounters at Sea